OPTA Spotlight: Examining TFC's defensive struggles

At the beginning of each week, MLSsoccer.com and OPTA will highlight one aspect or trend from that weekend’s action using analytics and events during the match to explain what forces are at play and how they pertain to the big picture.

Pardon the hackneyed phrase, but pinpointing the source of Toronto FC’s defensive struggles in 2012 isn’t exactly rocket science.

After running through all 13 goals Toronto FC have conceded in league play this season, even the most casual fan would start picking up on a few of Aron Winter’s side’s overriding defensive patterns.

As luck would have it, those regrettable traits were on display on Saturday against Chicago in a 3-2 defeat, providing a 90-minute window of sorts into Toronto FC’s struggles thus far and an opportunity to look at what the analytics tell us about the Reds.

To highlight the three dominant trends behind Toronto’s breakdowns, I’ll examine all three goals the Fire scored at BMO Field this weekend, using analytical data from previous games to help identify the trend at play.

WATCH: Frings turnover gives Oduro opening

#1: 1-0 Fire, Dominic Oduro (unassisted)

Goalkeeper Milos Kocic rolls the ball to Torsten Frings at the top of the 18-yard box. Frings lingers on the ball and doesn’t see pressure coming from Patrick Nyarko, who pokes the ball to Oduro for a simple finish that results in the game’s first goal just 25 seconds into the match.

Trend: Toronto’s desire to build from the back often backfires

In order to be successful in Winter’s possession-oriented system, Toronto must be able to launch their build up from the backline.

The problem is Toronto hasn’t shown the ability to do this consistently – or inconsistently some might say – since Winter took over in January 2011, a trend the statistics back up.

In 40 MLS games under Winter, Toronto has the third-highest percentage of passes inside their own defensive third in the league (see chart at right), but they’re below the league average in passing accuracy in that area. They’re also second to only the New York Red Bulls in instances of short distribution from the goalkeeper, averaging 7.03 per game while the league average is 4.71, as they look to find feet instead of send the ball up field.

Team Games Passing Accuracy (Defensive Third) Percent Passes in Defensive Third
Colorado 44 93.86% 20.93%
New York 44 94.51% 20.39%
Toronto 40 91.77% 20.34%
Real Salt Lake 45 93.58% 18.33%
Montreal 8 93.43% 18.30%
League average N/A 92.13% 16.97%

The problem for Toronto is that their mindset seems to shift the defensive focus to maintaining possession rather than avoiding dangerous situations. That shows up in the side’s total clearances per game (13), which is nearly 10 less than the league average in 2012 (22.37), a peculiar stat for a side that’s given up the second-most goals this season and should be forced to release pressure frequently (or perhaps simply isn’t clearing the ball when the situation calls for it).

Under Winter, Toronto has also been subjected to more tackles per game than any other team (20.18). And although they don’t lose possession following all of those challenges, they certainly put themselves in positions to have the ball stripped, which brings us full circle and back to the goal.

Oduro’s opener started with short distribution, with an eye toward possession, from the goalkeeper. Frings then leaves himself open to Nyarko’s tackle, which leads to the turnover in the final third and simple finish from Oduro – a result the trends reflected in the data supports.

Other examples:

WATCH: Segares makes it look easy

#2: 2-2, Gonzalo Segares (Sebastián Grazzini)

Chicago win free kick inside Toronto’s half. Grazzini floats a ball to the back post, where an unmarked Gonzalo Segares sticks out a leg to flick the ball past Kocic for the tying goal in the 40th minute.

Trend: Toronto’s man marking in the box is slack

This is harder to nail down analytically, as most of the evidence is observational rather than measurable. Still, Toronto’s performance this season suggests that they are much more likely than other teams to give away goal-scoring chances in the box.

Through six games in 2012, the Reds have conceded a full goal more in the box per game (two) than the league average (1.02). Along those lines, they also give up the third-most shots on goal from inside the 18 per game (3.5) and face the second-most big chances per match (a clear-cut opportunity for the opponent to score).

As Chris Wondolowski, Oswaldo Minda and Segares will tell you, slack marking is one of the reasons why Toronto’s opponents are creating and finishing so many of those chances inside the 18. When professionals are given the time and space to finish, they normally come through.

Other examples:

WATCH: Nyarko rounds Kocic for winner

#3: 3-2, Patrick Nyarko (Dominic Oduro)

Reggie Lambe turns the ball over at the top of Chicago’s penalty area. Logan Pause turns and finds a wide-open Oduro in the midfield, who turns and threads a through ball to Nyarko. The forward speeds toward goal, rounds Kocic and scores the winner.

Trend: Toronto give opponents the space and time needed to exploit their own weaknesses

The Reds' biggest weakness is almost certainly the lack of pressure opponents feel when they are on the ball, especially in counter-attacking situations.

Nyarko’s goal was simply the most recent in a long line of attacks spurred by either a turnover or lack of defensive pressure in the midfield, both of which tend to be followed by opponents picking out runners and creating numerical advantages going forward.

Team CBI/Game
Toronto 26.33
LA Galaxy 31.00
Montreal 35.88
Vancouver 36.00
Houston 37.20
League average 40.74

And although turnovers play a part, it’s the lack of pressure (measured in this case in part by combined defensive clearances, blocks and interceptions) that allows Toronto’s opponents to force their way into dangerous areas and – as we saw in goal No. 2 – finish once they get there.

Through six games, Toronto have the fewest combined CBI in the league by a wide margin. And although this in itself is not an indication of defensive frailty (see chart at right), that trend combined with the Reds’ other tendencies helps explain why they have so much trouble keeping other teams off the scoresheet.

Other examples: